Apple Unveils New MacBook, DRM-free iTunes

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Taking the stage at Apple’s final Macworld Expo, Apple’s senior VP of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller stepped into Steve Jobs’s shoes and got set to deliver "three new things" to the Macintosh faithful: iLife ’09, iWork ’09, and a new 17-inch MacBook Pro.

Acknowledging the controversy surrounding Apple’s decision to abandon Macworld Expo, Schiller showed images of Apple’s successful retail store operation, noting the stores bring in 3.4 million visitors every week…and that’s the equivalent of 100 Macworld Expos every week. The implication in Schiller’s presentation is that Apple doesn’t believe it need to shell out millions of dollars (and considerable effort) to reach a comparatively small gathering of its most faithful customers…and, in hosting its own product announcement events (as it has with the iPhone 3G and recent iPod and MacBook announcements), the company has proven it doesn’t need the publicity boost provided by the Expo to announce new products.

First, Apple announced iLife ’09, an update to its suite of lifestyle applications that ships with every Macintosh—and, of course, is available for purchase by existing Macintosh owners. (New Macs will ship with iLife ’09 pre-installed; current users can upgrade from a previous version for $79, or get a Family Pack for $99 when iLife ’09 ships in late January.) The photo management application iPhoto ’09 will feature new ways to organize photos using Faces and Places, in addition to Event-based organization and arbitrary user albums. The Faces feature actually uses face detection technology to organize images of people (and improves its accuracy as users identify individuals), while Places leverages geotagging information automatically embedded into images by many GPS-enabled cameras. iPhoto will also pick up support for posting directly to Facebook and Flickr, as well as new slideshow features that integrate with iTunes and can be exported to iPhones. iMovie ’09 will attempt to make up for users’ disappointment with iMovie ’08. The new version will feature a precision editor, automatic video stabilization to smooth out jitters, along with new titles and transitions. iMovie ’09 will also feature an animated travel map, so viewers can follow video locations from place to place. GarageBand ’09, Apple’s introductory music-creation application, will have a new "Learn to Play" feature with basic guitar and piano lessons. The application will also feature Artist Lessons, with musicians like Sting, John Fogerty, Sarah McLachlan, and Norah Jones showing users how to play their songs. Apple plans to add additional Artist Lessons in the future.

Next, Schiller introduced iWork ’09, an update to its suite of productivity application that loosely competes with the likes of Microsoft Office. The flagship presentation program Keynote ’09 will feature a "Magic Move" feature whereby users set start and end points for an object’s motion, and (Flash-like), Keynote will figure out all the necessary interim steps. The application also features sophisticated new animated transitions, and a new $0.99 iPhone/iPod touch application will enable users to control a Keynote presentation. Pages ’09 (iWork’s word processor) will feature a no-distractions full-screen mode and support for EndNote and MathType (both widely used in engineering and academia). Numbers ’09 (iWorks’ spreadsheet application) will feature more than 250 new formulas and automatic categorization feature for tables. Numbers ’09 also offers new chart types, and charts can be embedded in Keynote presentations, so when spreadsheet data changes, a presentation linking to it updates automatically. iWork applications will also integrate with iWork.com, a new online collaboration and document sharing service from Apple that will enable users to share and collaborate on presentations and documents. The iWork.com service is running as a free beta right now, although Apple eventually plans to charge for it. iWork ’09 is available today for $49 with a new Mac, $79 all by itself, or $99 for a Family Pack; Apple will also offer a Mac OS X Leopard, iWork ’09, and iLife ’09 in a single "Mac Box Set" bundle for $169.

Schiller moved on to new hardware: an update to the 17-inch MacBook Pro, which was mysteriously omitted from Apple’s "unibody" updates to the MacBook and MacBook Pro lines in October. Apple claims the new 17-inch MacBook Pro is the thinnest 17-inch notebook on the market—measuring just 0.98 inches thick—and the lightest at 6.6 pounds. The system sports a 1,920 by 1,200-pixel LED backlight glossy display (although, unlike other MacBooks, an anti-glare option is also available) driven by either a power-saving Nvidia GeForce 9400M controller or high-performance Nvidia 9600MT. The system sport up to a 2.93 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, support for up to 8 GB of RAM, and storage options including a 320 GB hard drive or a 256 GB SSD, along wiith FireWire 400/800 ports, an ExpressCard/34 slot, a mini DisplayPort output, three USB 2.0 ports, and gigabit Ethernet. The system will also sport a new battery that Apple claims offers up to three times the usage of typical notebook batteries and a five-year lifespan—with the catch that the battery is not removable. Apple is also touting the 17-inch MacBook Pro as eco-friendly, noting it is free of many common toxic compounds and the aluminum case is highly recyclable. The new 17-inch MacBook Pros should start shipping in late January at prices starting at $2,799.

Last but not least, Schiller diverged from his focus on the Macintosh to highlight significant changes to Apple’s market-leading iTunes. The first is that Apple plans to abandon its fixed $0.99 per track pricing policy—which has been a major sticking point in its negotiations with major record labels—in favor of a three-tier pricing structures: beginning in April, songs will cost either $0.69, $0.99, or $1.29—with, presumably, hot new releases coming in at the higher price point while catalog titles might slip to a lower price point to encourage sales.

More significantly: some 8 million of iTunes’ 10 million tracks are available in DRM-free format, and that by the end of the quarter every song sold via iTunes will be available DRM-free in a 256Kbps, AAC format (just like iTunes Plus DRM-free tracks today). Combined with variable pricing, this is a major strategy shift for Apple and will let them compete more effectively with the likes of the Amazon MP3 store, which had been offering a wider selection of DRM-free content than iTunes precisely because it was letting record labels set variable pricing. By giving labels variable pricing options, Apple is able to offer a much wider selection of DRM-free tracks via iTunes…and likely keep a lock on its place as the top music retailer.

Apple also announced that, as of today, users can purchase tracks from iTunes using their iPhones via 3G wireless networking, rather than being forced to find a Wi-Fi hotspot in order to buy music.

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